Sunday, May 26, 2019

"That's some catch, that Catch 22"

"That's some catch, that Catch-22. 
"It's the best there is."
Those lines stuck in my head in 1969 and never left. I heard them again in the Hulu iteration of Joseph Heller's "Catch-22." It was good to hear those words said aloud on a big smart TV. It acknowledges the elegance of the term, its evil logic. Yossarian would be crazy to fly the increasing number of combat missions. To get out of them, all he has to do is ask. By asking, he shows that he is sane and thus must fly more missions.

Fifty years ago, we could easily see the parallel for our times. Yossarian would have to be crazy to go to Vietnam and fight strangers. All he has to do to get out of it is ask. By asking, he shows that he is sane enough to go. It was a bind many of us found ourselves in.

Yossarian summed it up his self-centered beliefs during a talk with Clevinger who would soon disappear into a cloud. "The enemy is anyone who's gonna get you killed, no matter which side he's on."

We knew the people trying to get us killed in 1969. Johnson/Nixon/Westmoreland/Selective Service System. Also, our family and neighbors and teachers and all the people who were solidly behind the war. Fast-forward to this generation's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and its architects -- George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld -- and you can see through recent history what Heller was getting at.

In the Hulu version, by executive producers George Clooney and Grant Heslov, Yossarian is a wide-eyed antihero and a self-centered jerk. His acts of self-preservation hurts others. He whines and complains. He retreats to the hospital. As the scenes add up, it becomes increasingly clear that he is correct in his assumption that everyone is trying to get him killed. Still, he goes on his bombing missions, eager to drop his bombs so the planes can escape the flak field and he has one less mission to fly. The horrors multiply until Yossarian reveals Snowden's secret in the back of the B-25 (one of the book's proposed titles was "Snowden's Secret").

The most telling scene thus far comes at the end of the second segment, when Yossarian reaches out of the bombardier's window in mid-air and tries to erase a spot of blood. During the previous mission, the plane next to his is hit by flak. The plane's bombardier, his body streaked with blood, slides across the glass on his way to his doom. He leaves behind a bloody trail and we see the look of horror on Yossarian's face. On the next mission, some of the blood remains and Yossarian attempts to scrub it off, as if he could banish all of the blood that he has seen and will see. The music accompaniment: is Benny Goodman's "Goodbye," which can't be meant irony-free.

I finished watching the series late one night. That seemed somehow appropriate. There were plenty of laughs, many absurdities. The final scenes are eerie as Yossarian confronts the secret they all share and the blood of the innocents causes him to ditch his bloody uniform for the duration. Catch-22 loyalists may not like the last scene. It's not as hopeful as the one Yossarian chooses in the book. He revels in Orr's survival and his escape from the war. He contends to duplicate it or die in the attempt.

The Hulu series does not give Yossarian an out. The look on his face after yet another bombing run says it all.

Clooney and Heslov made other changes to the narrative. They work, for the most part. I missed Chief White Halfoat and Dunbar. Major ____ deCoverly gets very little to do. In the beginning, I thought it seemed a bit dated, maybe because we have been through so many absurdities (and absurdist fiction) since World War II spawned the book. And now, Trump, a true Scheisskopf, claims our attention.

Maybe it's not so dated after all.

It just doesn't end. There are so many enemies, those who want to kill us for nebulous reasons. Norman Mailer, another World War II combat veteran, said that Heller takes "his reader on a more consistent voyage through Hell than any American writer before him." That may be the biggest secret of all. Life is a trip through hell. Our assignment, should we choose to accept, is to make it heaven without losing our souls. At 18, "Catch-22" gave me an inkling of the challenges ahead of me. At 68, I see the road I traveled, how many choices I had to make along the way. I suppose that's the gift and curse of aging. Sometimes we get a little gift, such as the resurrection of a beloved book, to ease the journey.

The most thoughtful article on Hulu's "Catch 22" was by Jeffrey Fleishman in the L.A. Times, "Why Joseph Heller's 'Catch-22' is a relevant antiwar satire in the age of Trump." You have to get by the firewall, but read it at

In finding fault with Heller's depictions of female characters, he refers to Susan Straight, the writer who teaches a fiction class on love and war at UC Riverside. She lambastes Heller's treatment of women, especially the nurses. Most serve as just sex objects, an oversight that the producers try to remedy in this adaptation.

The following paragraph wraps up the article. To me, it sums up the real byproducts of war -- the damage done to the men who fight them, and the damage they do to the people who love them.
Straight’s memoir “In the Country of Women,” which will be published later this year, reflects in part on women in her family who endured their own private battles. “I’m writing about the women who fled all the men who had been in war,” she says. “My ancestors survived the men who survived the cannons and they were terrible men.”
Of course, you don't have to go to war to be a terrible man. Draft-dodger Trump is proof of that. But in "Catch-22," we see the bullet and the damage done.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

My sporty new rollator walker is safe at any speed

I own a  Drive Nitro Euro-Style Tall Aluminum Four Wheel Rollator. It's one of the new breed of assistive devices that allow people like me to get from one place to another. Commonly known as a walker. A device to help this injured biped walker walk.

On the last snowy day in May 2018, I fell on my rear end in a Fort Collins parking lot. I got up and brushed the wet snow off of my butt and continued the day's routine, which included moving my daughter into an apartment. My wife noticed my wet jeans. "Your butt's wet," she said. "And so is yours," I said in a playful retort. We laughed, our daughter looking on in bemusement and a little bit of love, although impatient to get on with the task.

You think that there are days that don't matter, They all matter.

Four days later, I awoke with a terrible backache. I don't believe in backaches. I've had them after long backpacks up steep slopes, many miles on my racing bike, a series of pickup b-ball games on the asphalt. But this was a raging backache, one beyond my ken. A few days later, I began to limp. A few days later still, I had trouble walking and I dug out my knee-replacement cane for balance. I grew worried. I consulted my knee guy. He x-rayed my knees and hips and said all was well with those parts. I was relieved as I didn't want to revisit the pain of another knee replacement. The doc prescribed PT. Ten days later, the PT guys saw me limping into the center using a walker, me dragging my left foot. They grew alarmed.

"We sent you out of here two years ago and you were walking just fine," they asked. "What happened?"

"Fell on my keister."

They conducted a few exercises and pronounced that something was wrong that they couldn't address. "We have to talk to the doc," they said.

The doc called me at home the next day. He had made an appointment with a neurologist and urged me to go. I went. The neurologist conducted some tests. She thought my brain was fine but my spine may be injured. She sent me to a spinal surgeon in Fort Collins who operated on Aug. 1. A few days later, I felt more mobile, especially mu upper body. That was the part I was most worried about. I had nightmares about lifeless arms with fingers that couldn't type. That was not to be the case. Read my post about the surgery at

Eight and one half months later, I still use a walker. I started with a standard aluminum walker with four rubber-tipped legs. You could always hear me coming. I lifted the walker, smacked the floor a couple feet ahead, and then moved to catch up with the device. You could hear me coming from one end of the house to the other. I stooped over because we borrowed the walker from a short person. My arms and shoulders hurt. I looked like one of those old guys slouching across the retirement home cafeteria. I located a taller walker at a retirement center, this one with two wheels on the front axles. I could stand tall and move faster. I thought I had reached the pinnacle, walker-wise.

I had seen four-wheeled walkers and thought this was the next step. I wanted my next step to be on two feet with any assist coming from my cane. That wasn't to be. I tried the cane for a few days and abandoned it when I fell getting into my car. I tried to get up but couldn't. A young couple driving by saw me sprawled in the street and guessed I was having a problem. They rescued me, guided me into the car, probably wondering "this old guy drives?" If asked, I would have told them that my right leg is fine but it's just the left leg and back and upper spine that torment me.

The world looks a little different when looking at it from a walker. Back when I was fully abled, I remember resting my eye upon someone in a walker as they passed. I walked, my legs perfectly fine. I barely noticed people using assistive devices. Now that I've joined the club, I see them everywhere. They were there all along but I looked through them or over them, barely giving them a thought. As a bleeding heart liberal, I feel empathy. But the dirty truth is this: you don't know the pain of disabilities until you're disabled. We don't want to admit that it can happen to us. And then it does, and you get a glimpse of what some people face their entire lives.

War, disease, accidents all leave damaged bodies in their wake. I read recently that 5 percent of adults in the U.S. use helper devices such as canes, walkers, and wheelchairs. Our town has an older population. We also are home to a major military base and a V.A. Hospital. Back when I swam laps at the YMCA, I would encounter the disabled vets from the V.A. doing their water exercises. Some of them had to be plucked from their wheelchairs and lowered into the water using a crane bolted to the side of the pool. I would watch without really watching, as I was sure these men got their share of stares when they were out in public. The other day as I rode one of the Y's stationery bikes, the swimming pool director told me that I could use the crane in the pool if I wanted to get back in the water. I thanked her but cringed inwardly. Is that why I had been avoiding the pool? I didn't want to be one of those disabled guys who needed the crane?

People do stop me to admire my colorful ride. I was putting Nitro in my trunk at Olive Garden the other day when a middle-aged woman stopped and admired it. She said she wanted to upgrade her mother's walker. I told her how to order and she left. The humor in my situation is pretty obvious. My Nitro walker is fire-engine red and vampire black. People admire it as they would a cherry '57 Chevy or bucket-T roadster. In some future place, old people will stage races that pits Nitro against Lightning. These are short-track races, sprints. A Daytona 500-style race would go on for months. We could fill in gaps in NASCAR's off-season schedule.

This reminds me of a story from my first collection, "Safe at Any Speed." In it, Florida retirees soup up their golf carts and stage races at an abandoned airstrip near Ormond Beach. Lest you think this complete fantasy, golf carts are now called golf cars. And for good reasons. You can spend $9,500 on one designed like a sky-blue 1957 Chevy Bel Air. This is a couple steps up from my Nitro, I can see myself tooling around in something similar when I retreat to a retirement village.

My disability is short-term, or so I tell myself. It has taught me one thing: people go out of their way to offer me assistance. This is especially true as I haul groceries to the car. One woman, possibly older than me, didn't ask as she edged me aside to load groceries in my trunk. I thanked her as she buzzed off. I got the impression that she is not a person who waits around for permission. Airmen, elderly, mothers with kids -- all have offered help. I usually refuse as I stubbornly avoid accepting assistance.  Humility is at risk. Humility can be dangerous. It  can lead to empathy and, God knows, we could use more of that in these cruel times.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Keep up with the arts scene at WyoFile's Studio Wyoming Review

WyoFile periodically runs art reviews in its Studio Wyoming Review section. I, periodically, write one of those reviews. My latest appeared on April 9. The subject was "The Art Of Assemblage" exhibit at Blue Door Arts in the Hynds Building downtown. Read it here.

Running through the review is some commentary on the role of the arts in Cheyenne's downtown redevelopment. I moved my family from Fort Collins to Cheyenne in the summer of 1991. The people we met thought we were crazy moving from a cool university town to a cold and windy Wyoming burg. Those same people escaped to FoCo when the roads were passable. It boasted good food, swinging bars, lots of concerts and other activities. It also had a lively downtown.

Cheyenne had none of those things. "There's nothing to do in this town" was the constant refrain, and not only from my kids. Downtown was a ghost town after 5 when the staties (like me) went home.

A lot can change in 28 years. I mentioned some of them in my last post. New restaurants opening. Condo complex even going up, probably the first new residences built downtown since World War II. I dropped by West Edge Collective's parking lot yesterday to buy a six-pack at the Pufkins food truck. It's Cheyenne Restaurant Week and pufkins (muffin-style pancakes) are $10 for six and I bought a couple of breakfasts' worth. Tomorrow I am getting some $1 tacos at La Paz ("Best Tacos y Burritos") on 18th Street just catty-corner from Danielmark's Brewery. IPA first, then tacos.

But wherefore the arts? I have been writing about them for years, both as writer/editor at the Wyoming Arts Council and as a free-lancer. The future looks good for a concert space at the old Lincoln Theatre. The Civic Center offers a great new line-up of events. The summer outdoor concert season will begin as soon as we get all of the snow out of the way. I'll be writing more about the arts in Cheyenne and around the region as time goes by. See you soon.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Cheyenne girds its loins for first boom since Hell on Wheels

I am surrounded by nuclear missiles. They lurk in their hidey-holes on the rolling prairie of Wyoming, Nebraska and Colorado. I give little thought to them on most days. I sometimes drive past F.E. Warren AFB's main gate and see the three Cold War missiles that greet passers-by. Convoys of missileers pass me on the highway on their way to their `24-hour shifts underground. A recent CBS 60 Minutes piece spoke of the antiquated launch equipment at Warren. This gave me pause, as "antiquated equipment" is not a term you want to associate with our nuke strike force. It's bad enough when films of the 1960s scared us with untoward nuke launches. Col. Jack D. Ripper went a little funny in the head and plunged us into a celluloid Armageddon. While the fail-proof fail safe system showed its flaws, our bomber crews carried out their mission. And the Russkis Doomsday Machine went off without a hitch.

So, when 60 Minutes showed that our local launch equipment is falling apart, that our airmen and airwomen are using computers from the Stone Age to take care of Space Age missiles, the Pentagon sprang into action.

It's a good thing that the U.S. Government is funneling taxpayer dollars ($90 billion) to Boeing and Northrup-Grumman to modern our nuclear capabilities. Cheyenne is agog that at least $5 billion of that will be spent locally. Boeing, one of the contractors, will hold a meeting April 11 for businesses "to learn about program support and Boeing supplier needs." N-G cannot be far behind with its own round of meetings..

I scrolled through the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent web site -- GBSD Bound. In flowing language, the writers describe the past, present and future of this program. The Chamber eloquently supports all this. The future's so bright, I gotta wear shades. Really good shades, as the flash of a thermonuclear fireball can melt the eyeballs.

It is good news for Cheyenne. Our capital city has experienced incremental growth the past five years. Many here say that this is the spillover effect from Colorado's boom. Cheyenne is the northern terminus to the Front Range. As such, it benefits when billions are being invested into infrastructure and businesses in Fort Collins, Denver, and Colorado Springs. That same boom has caused Coloradans to question their devotion to a Denver filled with overpriced housing, crazy traffic, and herds of shaggy hipsters roaming the territory as bison once did prior to 1859. "This isn't the Colorado I knew" is a common refrain among family and friends in the Centennial State. They ponder moves to the wide-open spaces of Wyoming and Montana and Idaho if only someone would buy their two-bedroom house for $500,000 and some visionary start-up would pay them bundles of cryptocurrency to telecommute from Laramie. The cryptocurrency/blockchain thing is no joke. Our legislature has passed a dozen bills in support of this as-yet unproven e-currency but is scared shitless with the thought of brown or transgender people moving into their neighborhood. And damn that federal gubment (except when it brings $5 billion to town).

Despite my peacenik roots, I am fond of missiles and rockets. My father fed his large family by planting ICBM sites through the West. He worked as a contract specialist with the Martin Company, later Martin-Marietta. He didn't so much build the sites as find reliable people to do so. He later did the same job in Florida for the space program, helping get Neil Armstrong to the moon in 1969, the year I graduated from high school. I saw Apollo 11 blast off. I canoodled with my girlfriend on the beach as we listened to the crackly car radio announce that "The Eagle Has Landed." My brother Dan and I spent our childhood building missile models and memorized all the names of the U.S. arsenal. I read all the Tom Swift books, in which rocketry played a key part. I watched Sputnik arc across the night sky. We were looking up, all of us. We did it together, maybe the last time that Americans were together on any one thing.

As we revamp our nukes, we are faced with new problems. The main one is in the White House, Donald Trump, buddy of the old Soviet spy who runs Russia. We have the North Koreans and Iranians. Saudi shenanigans. Dirty bombs from terrorists. Clean bombs from China. "Paranoia strikes deep/Into your life it will creep/It starts when you're always afraid/You step out of line, the man come and take you away."

We've come a long way from the so-called peace dividend we expected with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989. Remember that?

Cheyenne hasn't been a boom town since the Iron Horse rolled into town and Hell on Wheels was born. Its incredible growth back then earned it the nickname of "Magic City of the Plains."

Let's hope we're ready for this boom.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

From facts and fragments and anecdotes, I make up a story

The high temperature for Denver on Feb. 18, 1950, was 53 degrees. The low was 22. That's according to the Farmers' Almanac online weather search app.

Anyone familiar with High Plains weather patterns would see nothing unusual in this. Yes, 53 seems pretty warm for mid-February. But not unusual. On Valentine's Day 2019 in Cheyenne, located 100 miles north of Denver along the Front Range, I wore a T-shirt outside as I took out the trash. Sunny, warm, no wind, 55 degrees. During these mid-winter thaws, temps in the 50s can seem like 70s. You can feel spring in the air, even though spring is a long way off and sometimes delivers worse weather than January or February.

Today's temp in Denver will barely break 20. We expect 15 in Cheyenne. Yesterday I forgot my gloves on a trip to the grocery store. Wind chill was so bad that my hands didn't defrost until I grabbed a fresh-baked loaf of Italian bread and held it close. I must have looked odd. An old guy, bundled for winter, leaning against his shopping cart, hugging a loaf of bread, sighing softly.

On this day 69 years ago, my parents were married in Denver. The photos from that day were shot inside, although the photog could have herded everyone out into the sunshine. My parents are young but not that young. Dad had spent his late-teens and early-20s engaged in World War II. He then went to college on the G.I. Bill. He was 26. My mom was 23, a nursing school graduate and a working nurse. The couple looks happy in their photos. Members of the wedding party, brothers and sisters, spouses and friends, smile at the camera. They all have been through a lot, Great Depression and global war, and look ready to take on the world.

It wasn't easy. It never is. All of the people in the photos are gone now. We are left with their frozen images. And memories. I was born exactly ten months later in Denver's Mercy Hospital. Although family stories say I was born in a snowstorm, that's not what's in the Farmers' Almanac. It was clear and sunny. The high temp was 51 and the low 27. A day much like my parents' wedding day. Mom said she was cleaning the oven when she went into labor. She was trying to take her mind off of the waiting. I like the story but have no way to check it out, as happens with many family stories. Time moves on, memory atrophies, and what we think we know is not accurate at all.

We have stories. The stories sustain us. That's what I'm discovering as I research a novel set 100 years ago in Denver. We know some facts. Denver existed. We have maps and census stats. Hundreds migrated to the Mile High City from other places. Four of them were destined to become my grandparents. They didn't know each other at the time but fate threw them together. They married and I can't tell you what the weather was like on those days because I don't know their anniversaries. With a bit of research, I could find out. But that's not the important thing to me. I've always wanted to know why they came to Denver. I know a few things about their trajectories from elsewhere to here. Grandpa Shay, a cavalry officer in World War I, sought medical help for his lungs at Fitzsimons Army Hospital. There, he met Florence Green, an army nurse from Baltimore. They fell in love, were married, and  produced my father in 1923. They are buried together at Fort Logan National Cemetery in southeast Denver. Surgeons removed one of my Grandpa Hett's diseased lungs and told him to get out of Chicago or the winters would kill him. He jumped on a train to the Rockies. Agnes McDermott took a road trip with her sister and gal pals to Colorado in the summer of 1919. She and her sis liked it so much, they returned to southern Ohio, packed up and moved to Denver. My Mom was their second child.

That's how I got to Denver in 1950.

Time plays a trick on us. When we are young, our relatives tell us stories but we are so self-absorbed that we don't listen. Later, when we can appreciate the stories, the tellers are gone. We know only fragments, anecdotes, stories. The rest, we leave to research and DNA tests. The stories are important because, even if they aren't quite true, they can tell us about people's hopes and dreams and sorrows. We may listen more than we think we do. We may absorb the hopes and dreams and sorrows of those people important to us. I like the idea of genetic memory, that the traumas of our ancestors can be passed along via our genes. This is scary if there is a genocide or war or abuse in your family tree. It also may tell us something about why we get beat down by depression or rejection.

Fiction writers have advantages unknown to genealogy buffs. We respect things that can be proved. Nazi Germany invaded Poland on such a date. The U.S. landed on the moon on such a date and such a location (f*** you, conspiracy junkies). But everything else is subject to interpretation. We make things up. We try to get our hard facts right so you believe the fiction. It's not so easy to compose fiction when you base your story on real people. You have to go off-script. Readers often ask, "Is that a true story?" People, even creative people, crave a lived experience. We also like fairy tales. We like to get the bejesus scared out of us by an evil clown that lives in the sewer. By dragons and orcs. By serial killers who enjoy their liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.

Today is a good day to remind myself that I was produced by people whose life stories are incomplete and will remain a mystery. I know a few fragments. From those, I can build a bigger story that can eventually be called a novel.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

During a bad weekend for equality, I ponder the Catholic Church's social justice traditions

By now, everyone has viewed the video of the Catholic school boys mocking tribal elder Nathan Phillips on the National Mall.

To review, students from the all-boys Covington (Ky.) Catholic High  School are shown mocking Phillips as he beats the drum and chants the American Indian Movement song. Phillips is a member of the Omaha tribe, a Vietnam veteran, and one of the organizers of the Standing Rock oil pipeline protests of 2017. Videos show white school boys wearing MAGA hats. They also chant Trumpisms such as "build the wall." Obnoxious brats, sons of privilege. One wonders where their clueless hatred came from. One need look no further than our clueless hate-filled president, who mocks Native Americans with terms such as "Pocahontas" and references to the Wounded Knee massacre. They heard these things on talk radio or watched them on Fox News. Maybe they heard mockery of ethnic minorities around their house, from parents who shouted similar things at Trump rallies. Some teachers may be to blame, not so much for spouting racism but by failing to nip it in the bud. Certainly social media spreads the hate, although to blame the Internet for these boys' behavior is too convenient. It takes them -- and the rest of us -- off the hook. That's part of the problem.

Some Facebook commenters have urged the school to expel these students. Too easy. This is a teaching moment. Boot the kids from school and they will head off to the local suburban public school where they will remain smug in their ignorance. The Catholic Church has many teaching tools at its disposal. The New Testament, especially the Sermon on the Mount, is a good place to start. WWJD when confronted with a situation where empathy and understanding were called for? Phillips said in an interview that he was trying to insert himself into a brawl. He then tried to escape the melee but the smug-faced teen in the MAGA hat stood in his way. Here was a test to show what true Christianity looks like. Big fail, boys from Covington Catholic High.

The MAGA crowd loves to poke fun of "social justice warriors." Some of us, me included, proudly claim the term. Where did I learn the precepts of social justice? First, at home, then through the Catholic Church during mass and at Father Lopez Catholic High School. The nuns and priests and lay people taught us well. It's fashionable to criticize the church for its many transgressions throughout its 2,000 years. In recent history, we have the scandal of priest sexual abuse. Over he years, Catholic orphanages turned "unwed" mothers into pariahs and treated their young charges like cattle. The church loved its crusades and its bloody Inquisition. Spain and Portugal sent its men to the New World to convert the heathen and kill any who resisted. Nathan Phillips may be a product of one of many Catholic boarding schools, where youngsters were ripped away from their families and bullied into becoming good Catholics. The Catholic Church was a major player in the horror show of history.

It also offers me solace. Not lately, as I quit going to church. I used to find peace in the ritual of the mass. In adulthood, when sinking in the swamp pf depression, I found as much relief in prayer as I did from therapy and meds. I still pray. The main thing that turned me away from the church is what I sometimes refer to as its deal with the devil. The devil is represented by the evangelicals and their handmaidens, the Republican Party. The church decided decades ago that the war against abortion was more important than the spiritual health of its millions of members in the U.S. They allied themselves with the fundamentalists to impose a litmus test on its members. There are only a few questions on the test, I guess you can call it a quiz if you want. You are in the in-crowd if you oppose abortion, birth control, sex outside of marriage, women in leadership roles (including priests), and LGBT rights. This makes you a fellow traveler with the Evangelical Right Wing, a group whose roots are in anti-Catholic bigotry. Of course, Catholics did their own Protestant-bashing. When I was a kid, I was told it was a sin to go to a Protestant church service. I've sinned repeatedly in my adulthood.

So I'm a Cultural Catholic. My roots are in Catholicism but my present is not. I can't ignore memory. My final thoughts may be of a snippet of Latin from the old mass. My Irish grandfather and his rosary beads. Sister Norbert winding up to whack one of us misbehaving boys. Thankfully, I won't be thinking of how I hated Native Americans, Hispanic immigrants, Jews, Liberals, Obama, the transgender kid who just wants to use the bathroom, and all those other people who might look or think differently from me. I won't make others feel small so I can look big. That's a blessing right there.

LATER: Just returned from the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Black Tie Banquet at the Red Lion Inn. Full house. Sat at the Laramie County Democrats' table with Chris and Dem friends. Saw so many people I've met over the years, people I've met through the NAACP, Juneteenth and the arts. All of us were celebrating Dr. King. Guest Speaker was Dr. Olenda E. Johnson, Ph.D., a Cheyenne native who was the first African-American full professor at the U.S. Naval War College. Uplifting speech from an uplifting person. She talked about the late Wyoming State Senator Liz Byrd of Cheyenne who brought up the King holiday in the legislature nine times before it was finally adopted by that body's white majority. Talk about persistence and dedication. Now I'm home and realizing how wonderful it is to get out to meet people who make a difference day by day by day. Another blessing...

Friday, January 04, 2019

What it was like to be in England "The Summer Before the War"

The war was World War I or The Great War, as it was known before there was a second installment to worldwide slaughter. In the village of Rye in Sussex in England, the Edwardian Era was in full bloom. Men were men, women were women, and sheep grazed peacefully in verdant pastures. A young Latin teacher, Beatrice Nash, lands in the village. She still mourns the death of her father, a semi-famous poet. In Rye, she confronts the sexism of the time with great aplomb which caught this reader's attention right away. Her story is woven into those of Agatha Kent, a spunky middle-aged matron who lobbied to bring Beatrice to the local school. She also shelters her two nephews, Daniel, a foppish budding poet and Hugh, a medical student. The scene is set for this comedy of manners which eventually runs headlong into The Guns of August.

"The Summer Before the War" is Helen Simonson's second book and her first historical novel. She's done her homework, as far as I can tell. I am researching the same era in the U.S. for my novel "Zeppelins Over Denver," although a more accurate title might be "The Summer after the War." Only five years separate 1914 from 1919, but those years changed forever the very different worlds of Rye and Denver. The scope of those changes in Rye were perhaps more remarkable, given that the place had hundreds of years of history with pubs in buildings built in the 15th century. The settlement and later the city of Denver was but 60 years old in 1919, Colorado just 42 years into statehood and still possessed many of the traits of the frontier. Native Americans lived there for centuries but they were expendable during The Great Western Expansion, especially when gold was discovered in Cherry Creek. And we all remember the Sand Creek Massacre.

What happens when you deposit a crop of restless people into a restless place going through its own historic changes? A novel, I hope, a good one and publishable. Some 20 million people died in World War I and millions more in the Flu Pandemic of 1918-1919. More than a million U.S. soldiers went overseas and many returned changed in body and in mind. Nurses, too, women who had only imagined a quiet married life found themselves in bloody field hospitals while German shells exploded around them. Wars tumult sent many of them on the move to new places. Women would get the vote in 1920 and Prohibition began (Colorado got an early start in 1916). Racial strife spawned the "Red Summer" of 1919, when race riots flared in U.S. cities as black soldiers returning from war said they weren't going to take this shit any more. Working men went out on strike and were beat up and killed for their efforts. The Communists had turned Russia red. That "subversive" influence was felt in the U.S., and helped spawn the investigative unit that would eventually become J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. People traveled in automobiles and airplanes, even zeppelins. Jazz was the new sound and the Charleston the wild new dance.

What a time. I share Simonson's passion for the era. It involves digging into archives and digital records available through Google. War videos can be viewed on YouTube, and you can also listen to some great tunes such as "Come Josephine in My Flying Machine" and "How You Gonna Keep 'em Down on the Farm after They've seen Paree." The audio is tinny and scratchy which only adds to my listening pleasure. As I conducted research, it occurred to me that this entire generation is gone. A baby born in 1900, such as my Irish grandfather, would turn 119 this year. If you were born when the war ended, you would turn 101. There are some centenarians out there, but they are rare. Their collective memories lie within us, their descendants, and in the records they left behind. Their stories live on. However, it is through fiction that they really come to life.

Thus it is with Simonson's novel. Her leisurely writing style is reminiscent of the writers of the era, some of whom lived and worked in Sussex, such as Henry James and Virginia Woolf. But a formal tone and leisurely pace does not a boring book make. Simsonson''s characterizations are sharp and her conflicts very real. Humor, too, a real penchant for satire with writers as her favorite target. She has a lively time portraying the Henry James-like Tillingham, the poet Daniel who, a few decades on, would be wearing a black beret and mumbling his poems in a smoky coffee house, and Beatrice's almost-but-not-quite-famous father.

SPOILER ALERT! The townspeople rise to the occasion when was breaks out. They welcome refugees from Belgium. However, when one of the young women, Celeste, turns up pregnant and its discovered she was raped by German soldiers, angry residents lobby to turn her out. When her father arranges for Celeste to go to a convent, Daniel, the foppish poet, agrees to marry her. While Simonson sets her book in a bucolic setting in the midst of a beautiful summer and fall, she doesn't want us to forget that humans are fallible, even horrid, creatures..

"The Summer Before the War" is published by Random House. The trade paperback sells for $17. Listen to the 2016 Diane Rehm NPR interview with Simonson at